Album Review: Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

[Warp; 2009]

If you’ve gotten as far as this review, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Grizzly Bear’s standout single “Two Weeks” at this point. Maybe you saw the band on Letterman or caught the video picked up by just about every music blog ever. Perhaps you streamed it on the band’s MySpace or cut out the middleman and just downloaded the leak. In some capacity, you’ve heard it.

This is a good and a bad thing.

On the positive side, it’s the best song on the band’s newest record, Veckatimest. It’s probably the best track in Grizzly Bear’s entire catalogue and, nearing the halfway point, is a frontrunner for “Song of the Year.” Ed Droste’s vocals soar on this track, and the epic harmonies push it over the top. The tone on those keys is tough to beat, too.

But such a dynamic song doesn’t really fit on an otherwise understated album. The harmonies and intricate arrangements pop up on just about every song on the record, but nowhere else can you find the immediacy of “Two Weeks.” It could be excused, though, if “Two Weeks” detracted only from the record’s cohesiveness, but in comparison, the rest of the album seems to ramble a bit aimlessly, taking only baby steps from 2006’s Yellow House when a profound step forward is clearly within reason.

Veckatimest certainly has a lot going for it. It’s dramatic without being sappy, pleasant without being completely innocuous. And frankly, there isn’t a band out there who sounds anything like Grizzly Bear. Ultimately, though, Veckatimest doesn’t seem fully realized, meandering and messing around when the band seems fully capable of buckling down and focusing.

“Two Weeks” doesn’t just hint at the potential for more: it openly flaunts it. Beyond the atmospheric haunt of “I Live With You,” the romance of “Ready, Able,” the languidness and leisure of “Fine For Now,” Grizzly Bear is capable of something much more actualized, and Veckatimest only teases it.

Even without “Two Weeks,” however, Veckatimest would be able to stand up as an album. It wanders, sure, but not without a consistent orchestral sobriety guiding it as it does. For every vocal question mark, there’s a swell of instrumental exclamation points in response. It’s hard to find a corner of this album that doesn’t have at least a little string or woodwind flourish somewhere.

Terms like “art rock” and “chamber pop” get bandied about an awful lot in indie music (or at least in indie music reviews) these days, to the point that they’re virtually meaningless. But while many bands would be content to bring in a session violinist or a sibling who plays French horn, Grizzly Bear takes things a step further. This isn’t a rock album with a few weird instruments thrown on top to shake things up. This is a full-on orchestral record, even when stripped to just guitar.

In fact, this is Veckatimest’s strength: even when the dense arrangements fall to the side, when the lush harmonies disappear and it’s just Droste or Dan Rossen and walls of reverb, even when the urgency fades and the music seems to lilt along with the breeze, there’s still some kind of necessity present. Never do things seem self-indulgent or superfluous.

Everything on Veckatimest, from the loftiest harmony to the subtlest string pluck, serves a purpose, even if there’s room for a little more. And even if there’s room, there’s only one Grizzly Bear.